Reform’s Religious Action Center a temple of Jewish political activism at 50

Reform movement leader Maurice Eisendrath, with Torah scroll, meets President John F. Kennedy, left, in the White House Rose Garden, along with several other leaders in 1961. (Photo courtesy Washington Jewish Week)

While driving through Miami in the early 1950s, Kivie Kaplan spotted a sign that would change his life and eventually alter America’s political landscape. It read:”No dogs, no niggers, no kikes.”

That jarring discovery caused Kaplan, a wealthy Jewish American businessman, to declare, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting that sign,” recalled Al Vorspan, a close friend.

Until that moment, Kaplan “was not a serious guy,” said Vorspan, who united with Kaplan and several Reform movement leaders to establish the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Created in 1961 using Kaplan’s money and the political savvy of activist Jews such as Vorspan, the RAC burst onto the scene at the apex of the American civil rights movement. It quickly became integral in the battle for equality and emerged from the 1960s as the gold standard in Jewish political advocacy.

Specializing in matters of social justice and civil rights, the RAC has trained a generation of Reform leaders to fight for their liberal values on Capitol Hill and across the nation.

“The RAC is absolutely unrivaled in terms of the breadth of what it does,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It justified in a lot of ways the idea that it’s legitimate for religious institutions to have representatives in Washington promoting the ideas of their movements.”

Though religious leaders and politicians alike now hold the RAC in high regard, the group faced early opposition from many within the Reform movement. Critics argued that Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the Reform movement’s executive director at the time, had no business bringing Judaism onto Capitol Hill.

“It was an immense fight to create the RAC, one of the biggest fights in the history of the Reform movement,” recalled Vorspan, who served as director of the movement’s Commission on Social Action, which oversees the RAC.

Opposition, he added, “was not only vehement and strident, but immensely organized.”

Reform congregations across the nation, including in Washington, rallied against the RAC, deeming its overtly political mission divisive and anathema to the tenets of Judaism. One of the main hubs of dissent was the Washington Hebrew Congregation, which even hired lawyers to assemble briefs challenging the formation of the RAC.

“People would gripe, ‘We didn’t join a congregation to advocate politically,’” recalled Rabbi Richard Hirsch, who as RAC’s first director was forced to perform damage control in an attempt to assuage disgruntled congregations across the United States.

Faced with such widespread disapproval, leaders such as Vorspan, Hirsch and Eisendrath held their ground, confident that the RAC’s dedication to social equality and the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, repairing the world, ultimately would trump internal disagreements. And they were right.

“The biggest hero of this whole thing was Maurice Eisendrath,” Vorspan said. “He was the only one who said if a congregation thinks we’re wrong and shouldn’t be doing this, they can leave [the Reform movement]. It could have smashed us to pieces.”

But the RAC, he added, was built on a deep belief that “Jews have to take collective action as Jews, not just as individuals. It’s not just enough to preach. The important thing is to take a stand.”

True to that goal, the RAC’s first fight was no small squabble.

Before the dust kicked up by its controversial establishment had settled, Reform activists already were locked in the historic battle for civil rights in America. Kaplan, who had paid for the RAC’s D.C. offices on Massachusetts Avenue (its home to this day), made his contribution on one condition: that the RAC would host, free of charge, lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups. They were afforded the use of the organization’s offices and staffers. (Kaplan later became head of the NAACP.)

“In our conference room, these black lawyers and Jewish lawyers were working together every single day,” recalled Vorspan, noting that between 1963 and 1965, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were drafted in the RAC’s Massachusetts Avenue headquarters.

Since then, the RAC’s legislative portfolio — and its political capital — has grown exponentially. Its lawyers have been instrumental in protecting the separation of church and state, defending religious freedom and preserving the environment, just to name a few central issues. In the late 1960s, the RAC was deeply involved in the anti-war protest movement.

Much of the organization’s success over the past several decades is attributed to Rabbi David Saperstein, who succeeded Hirsch as the RAC’s director and counsel in 1974. Under Saperstein’s stewardship, the RAC has achieved near-mythic status among liberal and left-leaning activists.

“In my opinion, it is more due to the influence of the RAC that liberal or Democratic politics look the way they do than it is the other way around,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, a seasoned political insider and spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va.

“The RAC is dealing with dozens of issues all at once,” and Saperstein is the key figure who filters “out the issues that are important and not important,” explained Fred Reiner, rabbi emeritus at D.C.’s Reform Temple Sinai.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, another RAC devotee, still recalls the day in 1985 when Saperstein spoke at an event in Cleveland.

“I was already an active tikkun olam, Reform Jewish kid, but he and the work of the RAC galvanized me in countless ways,” said Scherlinder Dobb, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.

The same goes for Reiner, who can trace his activist roots back to the RAC. As a rabbinical student in the late 1960s, he participated in a four-day symposium hosted by the group.

“It was an incredible experience,” recalled Reiner, who went on to advocate in favor of the separation of church and state, among other issues, in his decades-long career in Washington. “It gave a sense of breadth to the issues.”

Although most of those issues have been framed in a decidedly left-of-center context, the organization has even won plaudits from far more conservative Jewish leaders.

“The RAC has undeniable presence and impact, and when I see their success, I’m happy for my fellow Jews,” said an Orthodox community leader who asked not to be named. “I just wish they were promoting something more in line with my viewpoint.”

Workshops and training programs have become a cornerstone of the RAC’s modern work. The group, for instance, brings nearly 2,000 high school students to Washington each year for social advocacy training and operates a legislative assistant program for college graduates.

The RAC’s influence also can be felt across the denominational divide. Take, for instance, the Conservative movement, which beefed up its D.C. presence two years ago, tapping Moline as its director of public policy and Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Temple B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., as director of its Israel Advocacy Office.

Moline said he cannot imagine trying to “replicate what Rabbi Saperstein has been able to do” because “he’s been at it for more than 30 years and, secondly, he simply is the best.”

Early on, explained Moline, “the Reform movement invested money and infrastructure in their bedrock commitment to social justice,” leaving the other streams of Judaism to play catch-up.

Others say that while they might not always agree with the RAC’s largely liberal agenda, its relevance and power cannot be disputed.

“David Saperstein and I may not see eye to eye on a variety of issues theological and social, but somehow he and I try to and do see heart to heart,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “I believe it’s very helpful when Jews with different viewpoints interact with each other.”

Asked about the RAC’s longstanding liberal record, Hirsch responded, “You say what you are, and we’re liberal. The Reform movement is not going to become right wing, OK? We’re liberal.”